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Thursday, 12 September 1996
Page: 3379


Senator BOB COLLINS(11.54 a.m.) —I appreciate having heard the detail that Senator Tambling has just given in respect of these two important airports for Tasmania. I can assure Senator Tambling, who I know is anxious about getting the legislation through, that I had always intended to leave this particular matter to this point of the debate. I would say that it will be the last point at which I intrude. It relates to my very close concern for and interest in—which I am sure I share with Senator Tambling—the future of Darwin and Alice Springs, which are equally crucial to the Northern Territory.

Senator Harradine was raising the question of the airports in Tasmania in the very important role that senators have of raising concerns in the Senate that directly affect their state or territory. I have to say to Senator Harradine that in a real sense—not in an absolute sense—Independent senators are in a far more flexible position to exercise the role that this Senate was supposed to be created for; that is, to protect the interests particularly of the smaller states.

I say `in an absolute sense' because, even though those of us who are proud to belong to the mainstream two parties in Australia continually raise issues of legitimate concern to our own parts of Australia from time to time, obviously we do not have the same flexibility that Independent senators have. The concern that Senator Harradine raised in respect of the two airports in Tasmania—and answered to some extent of detail by Senator Tambling—demonstrated the importance of that role.

Mr Chairman, I raise this issue, and this is an appropriate matter to raise it on, because I have seen some ignorant editorials in newspapers in my life from time to time—I have seen some fine editorials, too. I do not know whether this article has been drawn to Senator Harradine's attention or whether he has seen it, but I have seen no more ignorant editorial than the editorial that was published in the Daily Telegraph Mirror of Wednesday of this week, which referred to you and also to Senator Harradine.

I have never seen a more profoundly ignorant article. It is a great piece of self-indulgence. I have said it before: the most self-indulgent job in Australia is to come into work of a morning, have your first four cups of coffee—I do—sit down in front of a keyboard and bash out any kind of idiocy on a screen and have it reprinted 150,000 times and distributed all over the country. It is a wonderful role to be an editor of a newspaper. I would love to be the editor of a newspaper. But I think that you first have to spend about 10 seconds on considering what you write.

I draw attention to this editorial in the Senate. The final paragraph says:

In what is essentially a two-party system of government, Independent Senators such as Harradine and Colston are anomalies.

Thrown up by an unintended quirk of the electoral system, Independent senators are an annoyance we are forced to tolerate.

But they should not have ideas above their lowly station.

Listen to this:

Their duty in the Senate is to be seen and not heard. Let them be so.

All I can say in response to the editorial writer of the Daily Telegraph Mirror —and the circumstances are different—is that, if Senator Harradine is in this Senate as `an unintended quirk of the electoral system'—


Senator Short —A long one!


Senator BOB COLLINS —Indeed, Senator. He has been thrown in here by this `unintended quirk' since 1975 by election, after election, after election. The reason I thought this editorial was so profoundly ignorant was that it ignored these very issues that are of close concern to the areas of Australia that we represent which it is an important role for senators to canvass here.

I now want to take the opportunity to do so. I have restrained all of my remarks to this point of time in the debate, quite properly with the responsibility that I have got to get this through on behalf of the opposition. My final concern—I make no bones about it, whether it is a quirk that has put me here or otherwise—is raised as a senator for the Northern Territory. Senator Tambling is in a unique position to give me—I hope—an equally detailed response on Darwin and Alice Springs that he gave to Senator Harradine.

Basically my concern, Senator Tambling—and I am sure it is shared by you—is this: I have already declared my heresy in this debate. I have said already that I personally did not want to sell these airports. I did not want to sell the FAC. It was a government decision taken at the time, and I was party to it, which I supported as a loyal member of that government. But the reason for my concern is very simple: the Federal Airports Corporation, unlike, I regret to say, some other publicly owned operations in Australia, is a highly successful publicly owned corporation. The measure of its success is as amply demonstrated in the Northern Territory as it is anywhere else in this country.

Senator Harradine made the point that 100 per cent of visitors to Tasmania go by either sea or by air which, as far as I am concerned, was always one of those truths that I held to be self-evident, but that is certainly not the case in the Northern Territory. But—and this is why it is important to make this point—in a lot of ways places like the territory do have parallels with Tasmania because of the extreme distances, and of course the top end of Western Australia has the same situation, that people have to drive therefore placing enormous importance on air travel. As Senator Tambling knows, that is certainly the case in the Northern Territory where the lion's share of our visitors also come by air as they do in Tasmania.

One of the great successes of the Federal Airports Corporation has been to run in a truly entrepreneurial fashion—and it has—a number of airports around Australia that provide a national system of high quality terminals in this country. And don't tell me there is not a national interest in preserving that. In other words, it is not simply a nice terminal in Hobart or an efficient terminal in Darwin. There is, in my view, a real national interest to be protected in having in our major cities and gateways in Australia a national system of high quality airports. I do want to take the opportunity of commending what I think has been a superbly professional job by the Federal Airports Corporation in doing that.

The cold hard facts are, and Senator Tambling knows it, that if it had not been for the FAC negotiating with the then government to take on Darwin and Alice Springs those two world class facilities we now have there would never have been built. The point to make is that they were built off the budget. The FAC, I might also add, has had significant success in bringing what were then absolute economic basket cases back into profit or at least closer to the black line than they were before. They have done it at the same time as maintaining, to all of our benefits, some of the lowest landing charges anywhere in the world whilst building these high quality airports.

Senator Tambling knows exactly where I am coming from on this, and that is why I want him to respond in respect of Darwin and Alice Springs. You cannot overstate the benefit that those two first class facilities at Alice Springs and Darwin have had to the tourism industry in the Northern Territory. You cannot. When you consider the facilities that they replaced, the benefits we have had from them have been enormous and continue to be. We would want to see some restraint kept on landing charges under new operators who simply did not have the complete freedom to look simply to their bottom line.

There is not a natural marketplace operating with airports, as Senator Tambling knows. If you don't like the charges at Darwin, you can't just waltz 50 kilometres down the road and land at the other airport because there isn't one and there isn't one for 1,500 kilometres. It is simply not a marketplace situation that exists, and Senator Tambling knows it. We want an assurance that there will be reasonable charges after these airports are leased and that we will not have a situation where the charges are instantly hiked up or even hiked up over a progression of time because the charges all have to be borne by the people who want to come and visit us.

I want an assurance from Senator Tambling that in respect of the airport terminals at Darwin and Alice Springs there will be some consideration given to local ownership. In exactly the same way as Senator Harradine wants to see that situation in Tasmania, I want to see it in the Northern Territory because there is no question in my mind that the best interests of the local community then are served. If you have a local consortium they are far more tuned into the fact that they cannot simply regard the bottom line as being the only thing they are concerned about. They have to have regard to the flow-on effects of any punitive charges that might be placed on airports.

I basically want an assurance from Senator Tambling and some detail as to how the government will ensure that the current successful operations of the Darwin and Alice Springs airport will continue and that the sale of those airports will not change the current status quo. No-one but a fool would want to change it because of the highly successful way it is currently operating.

Senator TAMBLING (Northern Territory—Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Regional Development) (12.06 p.m.)—I thank Senator Collins for the comments that he has made. Very obviously, we share many of the issues from a parochial and Northern Territory point of view. I acknowledge them.

I will say two things at the outset, firstly with regard to the comments that Senator Collins made about the roles of editors in Australian newspapers—people who are invited to be editorial commentators. I look forward to the day when Senator Collins retires and becomes an editorial writer. It will probably depend on whether he retires before me or not as to who will get the upper hand in comments that might flow subsequently through the Northern Territory news and whether we are commenting on each other.

I share his concerns that the attack on Senators Harradine and Colston were most inappropriate and unfair in the way they were elucidated. I think when you talk about the role of Independent senators it is important to acknowledge that Independent senators certainly do have a particular role.

The only comment I have made that I think the editor may have picked up is that Senators Harradine and Colston are very prudent, succinct and tactful in the particular issues they pursue in this place. I only wish Senator Margetts would learn something from their tactics, particularly with regard to the time taken for debate in this chamber, in order to achieve very effective results. If Senator Margetts perhaps understudies them a bit more, she will find that there can be a tactical improvement in many areas.

Senator Bob Collins asked some very specific questions with regard to the issues of this legislation that do need to be addressed, particularly with regard to Darwin and Alice Springs airports. I think it is important to acknowledge that Minister Sharp has already instituted a number of reviews and inquiries that will have an important aspect of future operations of airports around Australia. In particular, I draw attention to Minister Sharp's reference to the House of Representatives standing committee of issues relating to the use of international freight and the use of regional airports and their particular involve ment. I think that is equally important to be acknowledged in this particular issue.

I note Senator Collins' comments about how particular airports—similar to those raised by Senator Harradine with regard to Launceston—do have an impact in regard to other regions throughout Australia. Like Senator Collins, I share that feeling with regard to the Alice Springs airport about which the international debate arises from time to time because of its very important strategic link to central Australian tourism—in fact, to all Australian tourism because so many tourists come through that particular airport.

Senator Collins, I would be pleased to indicate that the way in which we would process and deal with regional interests, whether they be in Launceston or Alice Springs, will tax the government equally and will have the attention particularly of government in the leasing and regulatory strategies that we will put into place in dealing with all of those issues.

I think it must be acknowledged that with regard to Darwin airport there is a peculiar situation. Like Canberra airport, Darwin's is a joint user airport that is shared with the Department of Defence. That produces challenges, problems and other issues that cannot be as easily identified as those at some of the other commercial airports around Australia. There has to be that third party, the Department of Defence, brought into any arrangements that may be made. Whilst there would certainly be an intent on the part of the government at this point in time to look at the opportunities that will arise with regard to the commercial activities at Darwin airport, they will have to be handled sensitively, having regard to the particular instances of those issues.

Senator Bob Collins addressed the issue of relating to reasonable charges and ensuring that we could be assured that the government is very mindful of the impacts that do apply in those areas. I draw the Senate's attention to the fact that the government has determined that there will be price caps over the next five years and, in particular, pricing oversight arrangements to be very particularly addressed. If I can take Senator Collins back to our election commitment, the government developed proposals for pricing oversight of airports post-leasing, which I now summarise.

A price cap will apply to all charges for aeronautical services as currently covered by the definition in the FAC Act. The ACCC will administer the price cap at major leased federal airports. There will be scope for operators to seek approval for charges for necessary new infrastructure investment, subject to support from principal users. The price caps at individual airports will be reviewed before the end of the first five-year period.


Senator Bob Collins —Was that a core promise?


Senator TAMBLING —Yes, of course.


Senator Bob Collins —I am relieved to hear that.


Senator TAMBLING —Good. I indicate also to Senator Collins that this pricing oversight issue has now been canvassed and addressed in a paper that has been circulated to all of the major industry groups, players and in particular to state and territory governments. We would certainly invite response and reaction to that from those parties, and of course Senator Collins if he wishes to comment on any of the issues that have been canvassed in that regard.

I can assure both Senator Harradine and Senator Collins that the issues that relate to regional areas, as they have particularly been raised for Tasmania and the Northern Territory, do have the wide and full support of the government.